CAITLIN ROWLEY
composer

Cy Twombly: Lines and angles as musical ciphers

As part of my research for my Cy Twombly project, A Sketchbook of Mushrooms, I did quite a bit of thinking about how the specific elements of the artworks I was working with could directly translate into musical material. We had a session with composer John Woolrich for our All Composers workshop class which focused on ciphers (e.g. Shostakovich’s use of DSCH, Bach’s use of his own name, etc.) and I wondered if there could be a way that I could ‘translate’ visual elements into musical material to use in a piece.

I figured that Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane would be an excellent place to start, and so it turned out to be. Kandinsky kindly categorises lines and angles as being warm, cool or ambiguous and his surrounding descriptions began to remind me of some of the descriptions surrounding general attitudes to modalities and the specific way in which intervals are treated in species counterpoint. While I feel that the scheme I outline here is rather simplistic still, I think it could be a useful starting point for something which, with a bit more thought and some experimenting could yield interesting results. I used this simple scheme in Mushroom III for the project, and found – like the ciphers Woolrich described – that it gave a quick way to create musical material that did seem (to me anyway) to feel connected to the artwork, and the arbitrariness of following a process for this creation gave me a kind of liberation from questions of whether what I was writing might be a hackneyed approach to translate visual material.

So, in short, this is what I ended up with. Reading up on what Kandinsky was saying about points and lines, it seemed to me that points related best to a single tone, whether sustained or not, while lines related to harmony in the following way (all quotes are from pages 58-9 of Point and Line to Plane):

Line style Kandinsky’s description Related modality
Horizontal ‘coldness and flatness are the basic sounds of this line, and it can be designated as the most concise form of the potentiality for endless cold movement.’ [p. 58] Minor
Vertical ‘flatness is supplanted by height and coldness by warmth. Therefore, the vertical line is the most concise form of the potentiality for endless warm movement’ [p. 59] Major
Diagonal ‘equal union of coldness and warmth. Therefore, the diagonal line is the most concise form of the potentiality for endless cold-warm movement’ [p. 59] Atonal/ambiguous

Obviously, a diagonal line can have many different angles, which could then accommodate differing levels of ambiguity – from basically major/minor with ‘wrong note’ harmony, through to fully atonal music.

Kandinsky’s discussion of angles relating to pressure put me in mind of the consideration of dissonance as being indicative of the amount of movement inherent in an interval (I think I read this in Walter Piston’s book on harmony – will look it up!) and the results I came up with for angles are these (all quotes are from pp. 71-2 of Point and Line to Plane)

Angle type Relates to shape Relates to colour Kandinsky’s description Related intervals
Right angle Square/Rectangle Red ‘The most objective of the three typical angles is the right angle, which is also the coldest. It divides the square plane into exactly 4 parts’ Consonant: 3rds, 6ths, perfect 5ths, unison, octaves
Acute angle Triangle Yellow ‘The acute angle is the tensest as well as the warmest. It cuts the plane into exactly 8 parts’ Dissonant: 2nds, 7ths
Obtuse angle Circle Blue ‘Increasing the right angle leads to the weakening of the forward tension and the desire for the conquest of the plane grows in proportion. This greed is, nevertheless, restrained in so far as the obtuse angle is not capable of dividing the plane exactly: it goes into it twice and leaves a portion of 90o unconquered.’ Ambiguous: tritone, perfect 4ths

I included the perfect fourth as an ambiguous interval because of its sometimes being consonant and sometimes dissonant in traditional voice-leading, depending on its context. This gives a little more scope, I feel, when dealing with obtuse angles and circles.

I haven’t yet tried to relate these to colours, as Kandinsky does – there’s so much variation, although it could create an interesting approach to harmony to try to assess, say, the levels of red and yellow in a shade of orange and to translate that as a combination of consonant and dissonant intervals. I also feel that there could be a lot of reconsideration to be done here, especially as regards right angles. Kandinsky’s use of the idea of ‘objectivity’ for this angle to me sounds more like perfect intervals than consonant 3rds and 6ths but for now this suffices to test the theory, I think.

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